Xenophobia and threats to Australia’s knowledge of China

Nov 28, 2023
Australia and China flags with Speech Bubbles. 3D Illustration

The failure of the latest round of government-funded research grants to include any topics related to China weakens Australia’s capacity to understand and manage relations with the region’s biggest power, writes Louise Edwards.

The latest Australian Research Council Discovery Grants were released in October to very little fanfare. The federal government didn’t veto any grants; shock-jock media resisted the urge to pillory grant titles and sneer at academic scholarship. A minority of grant applicants celebrated while most grimly pondered the coming summer dedicated to reworking their applications (again) for the next round. But this year’s grants also confirmed a disturbing new trend in our national research culture – the power of political influence to shape academic research agendas. Not a single grant focussed on China was funded – the first time this has happened in the history of the Discovery Grant program. And China is no longer one of our top 10 international collaborators.

The university sector is remarkably responsive to both direct instruction and informal signals from the government. Afterall, it is the biggest source of funding and drives policy for the sector. And this responsiveness been very apparent in the impacts of the 2018 foreign interference law and 2019 University Foreign Interference Taskforce. These warnings to researchers about possible harm caused by foreigners were consolidated by a raft of new bureaucratic requirements. Academics got the message, and many have duly reshaped their research agendas and moved away from collaborating with Chinese colleagues to avoid trouble and increase their chances of grant success. Politics rather than best-practice in scholarship drives those decisions.

Projects that include collaboration with a Chinese university are so few that they now are lumped into the ‘other’ category, or don’t exist at all. This is a dramatic slump from 2018 and 2019 when collaboration with China ranked 4th after the US, UK and Germany. The downward trend in research collaboration with China had been mapped in a UTS Australia-China Relations Institute report released earlier this year, but I doubt anyone thought that we would reach the stage where not a single project researching China would be funded or that collaboration with Chinese researchers would collapse. China is, after all, one of two global economic and military superpowers and an engine of global innovation.

The xenophobia impacting our university research environment follows earlier vetoes of grants by a series of Liberal-National governments. The projects that had their funding denied in 2005, 2017 and 2021 were all humanities topics that, one assumes, were not perceived to align with the Coalition’s political agenda. They included work on environment and climate, gender, literature, and the Soviet Union. China-focussed grants featured regularly in the list of overruled grants. In 2020, science and technology experienced ministerial vetoes as well – with national security invoked as the justification.

Increasing numbers of researchers have taken the ‘hints’ and reoriented their work. Grant success is not an optional extra in the academic career. It is central to promotion and performance appraisals as well as prestige among peers. Why risk doing a project on, or with, China?

For researchers hoping to take advantage of promised AUKUS research funds there are also new concerns about ‘foreign persons’. A draft Defence Trade Controls Amendment Bill released in early November includes the possibility of jail time for researchers who collaborate, or share research, with others outside of the AUKUS grouping of ‘like-minded partners’. Even if criminal charges are never laid, the mere possibility of this occurring is likely to deter many researchers. Why take the money if a jail term is even a remote possible consequence?

Global collaboration is at the heart of scientific research and central to Australia’s national interest, as the submission commenting on the draft legislation by two learned academies has pointed out. The chilling effect may cause some of our top researchers to move overseas and those who remain may redirect their energies to less troublesome projects, if they can. The next generation of researchers will think twice about Australia as a destination for advanced scientific research.

The creeping ‘watch out for (some) foreigners’ trend makes explicit a rather cavalier attitude to academic freedom in Australian universities, even for blue sky ‘fundamental’ research. Perhaps our politicians think that universities should come under the same constraints as the Australian Public Service? University researchers, by contrast, value social critique and the right to wide ranging inquiry – principles fundamental for a thriving democracy. Many Australian taxpayers would support those values and expect universities to uphold them.

We are used to thinking of censorship as a direct action where a particular book or film is banned – such as the earlier Australian bans on D.H. Lawrence’s Lady Chatterly’s Lover or Philip Roth’s Portnoy’s Complaint or the Chinese government’s prohibition of materials advocating separatism in Xinjiang or Tibet. But censorship also happens in insidious ways. Researchers or journalists, like many in public and private sectors, are concerned about career advancement and/or simply want to avoid trouble. So self-censorship occurs, people stay away from problematic topics, and they redirect their research and writing to keep their heads beneath the parapets. Insinuations of spying for a foreign country are not a joke, and failing to get a research grant after years of trying is demoralising. Not to mention the aversion to filling in yet another form.

The decline in researcher collaboration with China wouldn’t matter if it wasn’t for the huge size of the Chinese economy and the power of its R&D. China has moved from being a source of cheap labour to a locus of high-tech innovation. If Australian scientists are not collaborating with Chinese scientists, Australia will miss out on access to some of the most dynamic innovations being produced in the world today.

The failure to fund research about China is similarly damaging. The decisions made in Beijing and Shanghai have massive repercussions for Australia, whether we like it or not. Ignorance will not build a prosperous and influential Australia. If Australian researchers do not study Chinese society, politics, culture, and economy we will be left with a depleted capacity to understand how to position ourselves best for engaging with the superpower in our region.

We cannot outsource our capacity to understand China or the world-leading research undertaken there. Our practice of hoovering up experts from around the world won’t help us now – Australia’s habit of not-trusting non-Anglo immigrants with significant decisions or positions of authority has not gone unnoticed around the world.

Ping pong and pandas and the exchange of orchestras and ballet troupes were excellent steps in opening new bilateral bonds in the 1970s. But the newly ‘stabilised’ relationship of the 21st century also needs high-level knowledge about China and strong connections between Australia and Chinese researchers if we are to advance our national interests in a rapidly changing geopolitical world.


Original article posted from AsiaLink on 27 November, 2023

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